County Police Show Off Underwater Robot as Debate Rages Over Future of Agency
Bergen County Police say the remote control evidence recovery robot is one of only a half dozen in the county and provides a valuable shared service that local municipalities likely couldn't afford on their own.
An underwater robot the size of a microwave has found its way into the crossfire of a divisive county-wide debate.
This week, the Bergen County Police Department’s Water Search and Recovery Unit showed off its new SeaBotix LBV-200-4 Mini ROV — a robot designed to assist the 15-person unit in underwater search and recovery.
During a demonstration at the lower lake of the Ramapo Reservation in Mahwah this week, BCPD Sgt. Mark Tiedemann showcased the remote-control device, which sends a video feed from underwater to its operator on dry land.
County police conducted the demonstration in the long shadow of a debate over whether or not the county’s police department — and its specialty units like the WSAR — will continue to exist on their own or if they'll be absorbed by the county’s sheriff’s department.
For Tiedemann, the small robot is a representation of a big reason the merger shouldn’t happen. If the two departments are merged, he argued, many of the shared services offered by the BCPD would fall on individual municipalities.
“We are trained in evidence recovery … so, we know exactly what to do when we recover evidence, and we can testify in court about what we found and how we documented it,” he said. “[Municipal] fire department water rescue dive teams aren’t trained in that.”
A debate has been going back and forth amongst county government officials about whether or not to merge the BCPD with the county Sheriff’s Office since a report came out in May suggesting the move as a money saving measure.
A judge ruled this week to block a public referendum vote on the possibility, but allow for the freeholder board to continue with a proposed ordinance and public hearing on the merger.
Tiedemann said he feels mutual aid between local departments would not make up for potentially losing the county specialty units, such as the WSAR. “We have jurisdiction in the entire county and can operate completely on our own if we need to. Mutual aid can’t cover that,” he said.
When the Bergen County Freeholders initially voted this summer to disband the county police, opponents argued the burden of special services would fall on local agencies.
However, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli issued a letter to police chiefs saying that had not been suggested.
The proposed ordinance merging the two departments would transfer the specialty units operated by the BCPD to the sheriff’s office, but would not eliminate them, According to report on NorthJersey.com.
The freeholders may take up the issue again at their meeting this Tuesday. In the meanwhile, Tiedemann said the demonstration of the county’s new robot showcased a shared service the BCPD offers all county municipalities.
The robot, guided by trained BCPD members, uses video and sonar technology to locate objects underwater. It also has a grabber arm that can retrieve the objects it finds.
According to Tiedemann, the robot can help mostly with body, weapons and evidence search and recovery.
“We don’t really do rescue, that’s more of what a [local] fire department does,” he said. “Primarily, we search and recover bodies or evidence from crime scenes that has been tossed into bodies of water.” The unit also does infrastructure inspections “on things like bridges, or holes in ships,” he said.
The robot, which members of the WSAR unit were trained in using this July, will help by diving into waters that Tiedemann called “hazardous” for human divers.
The $107,000 device was purchased with Homeland Security funding, the county said, and is a rarity in the area. The new BCPD robot is one of only five held by police departments in the tri-state area — two are property of the NYPD, one of the FBI, and one was recently purchased by the Jersey City Police Department.
“It’s a great thing for us to have because of what we do,” Tiedemann said. “There are only five or six dive teams in the county. So we are called in to places all across Bergen County. This is an example of a shared service. Each municipality couldn’t afford to buy one of these robots. We are able to offer the technology to all of them.”
The WSAR unit typically responds to 12-15 calls a year, but “it depends on the year.” In 2011, he said the unit responded to 20-30 different calls during Hurricane Irene alone.
Until a decision is made, Tiedemann said specialty units will continue to operate under the BCPD. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” he said. “The dive team alone has been here for over 50 years, and we are always improving what we offer to municipalities and getting new equipment and things like that.”